WASHINGTON (AFP) - US President Barack Obama on Friday offered his "strong support" for the protection of Tibetans' human rights in China as he defied protests from Beijing to meet the Dalai Lama.
With China warning that the meeting would derail ties between the world's two largest economies, Mr Obama took care to avoid any trappings of an official visit, receiving the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader in the Map Room of the White House residence and not the Oval Office where he usually talks to dignitaries.
The Dalai Lama, usually chatty and playful with foreign audiences, was nowhere to be seen at the White House, which did not allow in reporters. The administration instead released an official photograph of the robed Buddhist monk gesticulating with one hand and clutching prayer beads in the other as he spoke to a studious-looking Obama over glasses of water.
In Beijing, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui summoned the US charge d'affaires, Daniel Kritenbrink, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported. "China expresses strong indignation and firm opposition," Mr Zhang was quoted as saying.
The White House in a statement said that Mr Obama expressed "his strong support for the preservation of Tibet's unique religious, cultural, and linguistic traditions and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People's Republic of China."
The statement said that Obama backed the Dalai Lama, who fled his homeland for India in 1959, in his "Middle Way" path of peacefully advocating greater autonomy for Tibetans.
Mr Obama called for China to resume talks with the Dalai Lama's envoys, which broke down in 2010 after making no headway.
The statement rejected Beijing's charges that the Dalai Lama, a self-described pacifist, had a separatist agenda and that his meeting was part of a plot to split China.
China calls the Dalai Lama a "wolf in sheep's clothing."
"We urge the US side to treat China's concern in a serious way and immediately cancel the planned meeting," Chinese foreign ministry spokeman Hua Chunying said in a statement ahead of the talks.
Mr Hua called the Dalai Lama a "political exile who has long been engaged in anti-China separatist activities under the cloak of religion."
"The US leader's meeting with the Dalai is a gross interference in China's internal affairs, a severe violation of codes of international relations and will seriously impair China-US relations," she said.
Mr Lobsang Sangay, the Tibetan prime minister-in-exile, dismissed Beijing's criticism, saying that the Dalai Lama has clearly stated he does not have an "anti-China" agenda and is not seeking independence.
Mr Sangay hailed Obama for holding his third meeting as president with the Dalai Lama. The two Nobel peace laureates last met in 2011. "It sends a very powerful message to Tibetans inside Tibet because it gives them a sense of hope that their voices are heard, even by the most powerful person in the world," Mr Sangay told AFP.
"The respect shown to His Holiness by President Obama means a lot to Tibetans all over the world, particularly inside Tibet," he said.
China has for decades voiced anger at foreign dignitaries' meetings with the Dalai Lama, who has developed a global following and addresses standing-room-only crowds across the Western world and India. He flew out later Friday to San Francisco to deliver lectures.
Human rights groups have voiced growing concern since China launched a crackdown on Tibetan demonstrations in 2008. After the unrest, more than 120 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in suicide protests against what they see as political oppression, controls on their religion and discrimination by China's Han majority.
"The Dalai Lama is essentially a political fugitive whose group instigates separatist activities including self-immolations," Xinhua said in a commentary.
The visit comes on the heels of a trip to Beijing by US Secretary of State John Kerry, but well ahead of an Asia-Pacific summit there in November that Mr Obama is expected to attend - meaning that China could not retaliate by canceling a high-profile visit.
Mr Obama is due in Asia in April, but has no stop in China planned - though the visit will be dominated by questions over Beijing's tense relations with its neighbors.
Mr Obama came under domestic criticism in 2009 when he did not see the Dalai Lama during a visit to Washington, as the new president looked to start on the right foot with China.
But the optimism of the early days of the Obama presidency has dimmed, with the United States pressing China on a range of concerns including its territorial disputes with US allies Japan and the Philippines and Beijing's alleged cyber espionage campaign.
In an interview with Time magazine before his meeting, the Dalai Lama praised Chinese President Xi Jinping for "fearlessly" fighting corruption. But he condemned censorship and said that China's judicial system needed to be improved to international standards.